Neda Kellogg created Project Diva, a Minneapolis mentoring program for black girls and young women.
In them, she sees herself.
Kellogg was 12 years old and living in Omaha when her mom told her that “the people upstairs are talking about me,” revealing the schizophrenia that would change their lives. Kellogg and her 7-year-old brother stayed with their grandmother, then their father. She longed for her mother’s advice and love.
“Those nights of crying that nobody knew about, those suicidal thoughts nobody knew about,” Kellogg said. “I just remember nobody really paying attention to me. I was still expected to respect adults, get good grades.
“But nobody ever addressed that emotional side of me.”
Kellogg, 46, addresses the many sides of the girls in Project Diva, a nonprofit that began a decade ago in a charter school and has become an intensive, immersive coaching curriculum. The younger “dolls” and older “divas” talk about wellness and finances, academics and careers alongside volunteer mentors. The program is meant to bolster the young women, teaching them skills and resilience as they come up against some pretty stark statistics — health and financial disparities among them.
“When you come and take a session with us, you’re going to leave changed,” Kellogg said. “We’re not here to babysit you. Are you ready for this information we’re about to give you? Because it’s going to change your life if you’re ready for it.”
This year, for this work, Kellogg won a two-year, $100,000 Bush Fellowship, to become a more effective leader. The fellowship will give Kellogg a chance to reflect after years of grinding, a chance to focus on herself after years of concentrating on the community. It will also allow her to “own the type of executive director I am,” she said.
Kellogg has a smiling, sincere intensity and an ability to quickly root out a person’s passions. Meeting in a northeast Minneapolis coffee shop, she described the maturity and tenacity of the teenagers she had taken under her wing. One young woman is living with her, for now. She had driven another to summer school that morning and, later that day, would bring her home from work.
Kellogg is “being who she needed at the time when she was young,” said Keeya Allen, a longtime Project Diva leadership coach.
“If we would have had us when we were that age, we would have been so far ahead,” Allen continued. “But without those bumps and bruises, we also wouldn’t be who we are today, doing what we’re doing for the next generation.”
On Saturdays during the school year, the two dozen girls and young women in Project Diva gather for a workshop, meals and a mentor check-in. This year, Kellogg is tweaking the curriculum to include more financial literacy. Each lesson is culturally focused, she said, so any talk about finances includes “the history of the black dollar.”
The program gets the girls’ parents involved, too. Volunteer coaches are a bit like aunties, Kellogg said. “The relationships are very intertwined,” she said. “That’s what sets us apart from other organizations.”
That village structure is also rooted in Kellogg’s childhood, in her close relationships with her aunts and cousins. The black women she looked up to were brilliant and impeccably dressed, she said.
“They left their house in furs,” Kellogg said. “My mom never went to the mailbox without her lipstick.”
Thus, the use of “diva,” which in this program stands for dignity, integrity, virtue and availability. Those words make up the program’s preamble, which the girls recite at every meeting. It ends with: “Forever I am a work in progress!”
The mentors share their own work with the girls. Kellogg tells them how, as a child, she dreamed of being a teacher, arranging her Barbies in rows in an imaginary classroom. But after graduating from high school, she turned down a full ride scholarship at the University of Nebraska Omaha to find her mother, whom she hadn’t seen for six years.
“Being a workshop facilitator, being the founder of this organization, I teach,” she said. “But I haven’t gotten there the traditional way.”
She also shares her current struggles. Kellogg commutes regularly — three times in a recent week — to Omaha, where her son is about to start his senior year of high school.
“She has made the ultimate sacrifice,” Allen said. “I know there’s been many days and many times where she had wanted to give up.”
Kellogg could, if she wanted to, “go direct somebody else’s million-dollar nonprofit,” Allen continued. “But she keeps working at what she loves.
“She reminds us not to give up on your dreams.”